We are in the midst of a fundamental shift in the way we think about work. The baby boomer generation is gradually retiring while, within the next decade, millennials will make up 50 percent of the workforce. The most sought-after jobs are not at the companies with the best healthcare benefits or strongest growth prospects (though these are important), but the ones with vibrant, clearly defined, purpose-driven cultures.
On top of that, whether we like it or not, technology has created a 24/7, always-on work paradigm. Naturally, as companies expect their employees to be constantly connected, employees expect a work culture that fits naturally with the rest of their lives. The boundaries between work and life are eroding and companies have to inject more of the latter into the former if they want to survive.
As I often tell startups, you can have a culture by accident or a culture by design. Either way, you’re going to end up with a company identity that, once formed, is hard to change. Nailing the culture piece is a particularly challenging aspect for young companies as they grow into mature organizations. Once you get past a certain headcount, company culture becomes an organic, self-perpetuating force.
Take, for example, these four successful companies that have leveraged their unique company persona as a rallying cry to drive growth.
1. The humble over-achiever: Zappos
It takes a special company culture to get so many employees passionate about online shoe sales, but that’s exactly what CEO Tony Hsieh did with Zappos. The company’s secret sauce is in its stellar customer service (always such a challenge in retail) that requires every employee to be unfailingly engaged and willing to go the extra mile.
One of the company’s 10 core values is “Be humble”-- a refreshing change from the zeitgeist. And thankfully humility is free, and something that any company can invest in through open communication practices and humble actions from high-level leadership such as answering the phone for an hour to show all tasks are important.
2. The disciplined rebel: Patagonia
Patagonia goes against the grain and by doing so has tripled its profits in the last five years. Company leaders have encouraged consumers to decrease their environmental footprint by buying fewer clothes -- a provocative suggestion from a clothing manufacturer. Environmental stewardship has always been a central part of its mission, and the company has never wavered from that.
Finding a mission and sticking to it -- even if it seems like it may disrupt your bottom line -- can attract the type of employee that will help your company grow. Patagonia’s mission, for example, has attracted the kind of authentic, activist employees that has led it to continually put its money where its mouth is and inspired deeper customer loyalty.
3. The team player that loves a good time: New Belgium Brewing
Like its top-selling brews, New Belgium is stronger than the sum of its parts, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The Colorado-based company -- the eighth largest overall and third largest craft brewery in the country -- has thrived for 20 years on what it calls its “high-involvement culture” and a commitment to quality. Co-founders Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan don’t have employees, so much as "co-owners" working alongside them. After one year of employment, ownership is awarded through the Employee Stock Ownership Program and employee-owners start sharing in company profits.
Allowing employees to have a stake in your company will give them a purpose beyond the day to day. An annual strategic planning offsite and open access to the financial books encourage co-workers to become active stewards in the business. Transparency is key -- from the top down. Whatever they’re brewing together, it seems to be working as sales grew 41 percent between 2009 and 2012 to hit $180 million.
4. The eccentric innovator: Google
Google’s astronomical success speaks for itself, but it is still worth noting that a company with such a meteoric rise managed to keep its founding culture intact through exponential growth. Google has actively invested in employee happiness from day one, whether through luxurious perks or the freedom to pursue passion projects on company time. Even with its fair share of controversies and a reputation for demanding work schedules, Google continues to attract top talent and recognizes that the company’s future is dependent on its employee’s innovative spirit.
Companies should push the envelope beyond the traditional perks. Yes, food and wellness are important, but listen to your employees -- maybe Friday afternoons off are more valuable to morale than a free meal once a week.
Remember, company culture, like any culture, begins and ends with people, so make sure you’re hiring the right ones because, ultimately, your personality is amassed from theirs.